There are fresh calls for an inquiry into the way the government assesses eligibility for a key disability benefit, after claimants with mental health conditions described how they had been asked in assessments why they had not taken their own lives.
There was a horrified reaction on social media when disabled activist Alice Kirby revealed on Twitter how the healthcare professional who assessed her eligibility for personal independence payment (PIP) had asked her: “Can you tell me why you haven’t killed yourself yet?”
After she shared her experience, many other claimants came forward to say that they had been asked the same, or a similar, question by their assessors.
Kirby, co-founder of the user-led group Disabled Survivors Unite (DSU), told Disability News Service (DNS) that the question was asked by an assessor employed by the government contractor Atos at her PIP assessment in November.
Kirby tweeted: “During my #pip assessment I was asked why I hadn’t killed myself yet. This is standard, assessors regularly ask this question.”
This was retweeted more than 850 times, while she received more than 140 comments, many of them from other PIP claimants with mental health conditions.
Kirby told DNS: “We know cuts to disability benefits cost people their lives, but these assessments themselves also put us at risk.
“The DWP urgently needs to launch an investigation into the assessment process and the effect questions like this have on us.
“People are terrified about being assessed, and many find their assessments so traumatic that it has a detrimental effect on their health.
“This is simply unacceptable; we should not be living in fear.”
Kirby’s concerns are just the latest to be raised about the PIP assessment process, and come as DNS continues its investigation into claims of widespread dishonesty and other poor practice by assessors working for both Atos and fellow contractor Capita on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
DNS has now collected many more than 100 cases of PIP claimants who have raised serious concerns about their assessments, in addition to those collected by Kirby.
The assessor’s question was described by those who read Kirby’s tweet as “horrendous”, “unacceptable”, “horrific” and “absolutely flabbergasting”.
In a follow-up tweet, Kirby said: “Let that sink in – government are hiring companies and telling them to ask disabled people why they haven’t killed themselves.”
She added: “It should be more widely acknowledged how humiliating and uncomfortable #pip and #esa assessments are made for disabled people.”
DNS has seen comments posted on social media – collated by Kirby – by at least 30 other disabled people who say they have been asked similar questions during PIP assessments or work capability assessments.
One of them, who was assessed by Capita, told DNS that she had been discussing her mental health with a PIP assessor last summer, and mentioned that she had been treated in A&E on a number of occasions after wishing to take her own life, when the assessor asked: “Why didn’t you kill yourself?”
Another said they were “aggressively questioned about why I hadn’t killed myself ‘yet’ and what methods I’d use”.
One said: “I also got asked this because I have PTSD and have attempted in the past. They asked why I failed.”
Another said: “I was asked that. True low point.”
One PIP claimant told Kirby on Facebook: “I got asked this, I felt very, very, very degraded. It’s a question that should not be asked.”
Another said he had heard it twice when attending other people’s assessments, and when he objected was threatened with being thrown out of the assessment.
Others said they had been asked, or heard, other disturbing questions and comments about self-harming behaviour during the PIP process.
One said he was told: “You’ve considered suicide? That’s understandable.”
Another Twitter-user told Kirby that a friend had been asked at a tribunal appeal to prove that she had tried to kill herself.
When she showed the panel the healed scars on her arm, she was told: “Long time ago then.”
So far, neither DWP, Atos nor Capita have denied that assessors have asked such questions.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “We expect the highest standards from the contractors who carry out PIP assessments.
“Both Atos and the DWP take allegations of this kind very seriously and will investigate any complaints made.“
An Atos spokesman said: “We are unaware of a complaint but we will investigate if one is made.
“Our role is to provide a well evidenced report based upon information obtained using the criteria laid out by government.
“The professional and compassionate service we provide to claimants is our primary consideration.”
A Capita spokeswoman said: “Our assessments are carried out in line with guidance from the Department for Work and Pensions.
“Disability assessors are equipped with knowledge, skills and continuous training in order to understand how various mental and physical health challenges impact upon a claimant’s daily function.
“While we cannot comment on specific cases, we expect all assessments to be conducted in a professional and empathetic manner.”
When asked whether such questions were offensive and potentially dangerous, and whether Capita would take action to ensure they were no longer asked in assessments, she refused to comment further.
But Kirby added: “The fact that neither the DWP or Atos have denied that I was asked this, or that it is a question regularly asked, is very telling.”
She said that some people on social media had cast doubt on what she wrote and had demanded proof.
But she said: “Assessments are purposefully made very difficult to record, and in any case we are not allowed to publish recordings.
“This ensures assessors are not held accountable for what they say, while we are seen by some as unreliable sources.
“Until our testimonies are heard and believed, this fight for justice will continue to be a difficult one.”